Following an hours-long public hearing that generated impassioned pleas from community members on both sides of the issue, the Whitefish Planning Board on Thursday night voted unanimously to deny a request by Fresh Life Church to build a new church in the heart of the city’s retail corridor.
The church’s request for a conditional use permit to construct its building on Central Avenue in Whitefish’s Old Town Historical District, where it is proposing a church as well as retail space, now heads to the Whitefish City Council on Feb. 20 for final action. The six-member planning board serves as an advisory council, and recommended denial of the permit.
For four hours it was standing-room only inside Whitefish City Hall’s council chambers, where one board member said he counted 118 members of the public, the majority of them attending in opposition to the project. Opponents cited a litany of concerns, including the church’s tax-exempt status, potential parking problems, traffic congestion, clashes with the city’s downtown character, its growth plan and downtown master plan, and the church’s record of occupying a suite of historic buildings in downtown Kalispell.
Whitefish resident Grete Gansauer, one of around 20 in attendance who spoke in opposition, voiced strong concerns that the church had similar ambitions to grow its retail portfolio in Whitefish and overwhelm the community.
“I understand that it complies with the zoning standards but Fresh Life has become a large brand that is inconsistent with the tourism brand and the small-town neighborhood feel of Whitefish,” she said. “It wants to add Whitefish as another notch in its belt, and I am concerned about a new building that does not fit the vintage character of this town.”
After Gansauer’s testimony, the council chambers erupted in applause, eliciting the first of several reminders from Planning Board Chair Steve Qunell that those in attendance must adhere to the rules of civil public discourse.
The volume of public testimony was bolstered by the groundswell of written comments that flooded the board’s packet — of the 143 comments it received prior to the meeting, 46 were in favor of the project and 97 opposed.
The applicant, John Mark Creamer, operations pastor at Fresh Life, addressed many of the concerns expressed in those comments, and made adjustments to the proposal based on recommendations by city planning staff.
He said the project includes 4,500 square feet of retail space that would be owned and operated independent of the church (assuming there were willing buyers) and sit at ground level, while church activities would be confined to an auditorium below ground. He said the added retail space would generate $18,750 in additional revenue to the city’s tax base annually based on the proposed building’s appraised estimated value of $1.5 million.
Creamer also noted that Fresh Life Church has held worship services in Whitefish for seven years, both at the Performing Arts Center and at Casey’s Bar, and parking has never been a problem. Rather, he said the influx of congregants has been a boon to downtown.
Eric Payne, a longtime contractor in Whitefish who is working on the project, said the substantial addition of new retail in the city’s downtown corridor was being overlooked.
“That is the largest introduction of new retail space on this block ever, and one of the largest introductions of new retail on Central Avenue ever,” he said. “There is no one who has stepped up in the history of Whitefish and developed an entire lot on this block of Central for retail. All the focus is now being focused on the church. It is losing sight of a tremendous amount of revenue for Whitefish.”
Payne said the applicant took great care to ensure the proposed building was a good fit with Whitefish’s unique character.
“The church wants to be a good neighbor. We don’t want to put something in here that we are not all proud of,” he said. “I care immensely about the project itself and the appearance it has on Central Avenue.”
Michael Goguen, a prominent Whitefish philanthropist who owns businesses in downtown Whitefish — Casey’s Bar and the Red Caboose — and who attends Fresh Life Church services, said the project would be a bright addition to the downtown corridor. Calling the community’s skepticism of Fresh Life “the fear of the unknown,” Goguen acknowledged that he himself was once leery of the church’s mission, until he began attending and became close with its founding pastor, Levi Lusko.
“I didn’t know anything about Fresh Life Church when I first met Levi. I was suspicious,” he said. “I wondered if this is a bunch of glassy-eyed loony people or a Tammy Faye Bakker attempt to get your money. I found quite the opposite to be true.”
As proposed, the new church would span three lots at 334 Central Ave., including the former location of Lakestream Fly Shop, which operated there for years before moving to its current spot on Spokane Avenue.
Under zoning regulations, there are two reasons Fresh Life must obtain a conditional-use permit from the city of Whitefish in order to build a new church — at 10,800 square feet, the proposed size exceeds the 7,500-square-foot building threshold defined in WB-3 zoning regulations that steer development in Whitefish’s Old Town Central District; and churches in that district cannot operate at ground level under current zoning requirements.
In order to comply with current zoning as well as the character of Whitefish’s downtown core, Fresh Life has proposed a split-level building with one floor situated below ground level and one above, according to Hilary Lindh, long-range planner with the Whitefish Planning Board and the author of the planning report that recommended approving the permit, albeit with a host of caveats, including that the project does not address the public’s concern that the church does not align with the city’s downtown master plan.
Planning Board Vice Chair John Ellis, who ultimately made the motion to deny the request, said the proposal was crafted to skirt zoning regulations by tucking the church below ground level and flanking it with five retail units, calling the design a “sleight of hand.”
“I think that is just a gimmick to avoid how the zoning regulations were written and avoid how the downtown master plan was written,” he said, adding that the city planning staff’s recommendation was riddled with “buts.”
“This is a recommendation filled with nothing but adverbs that express it in the least possible positive light,” he said. “A conditional use permit should be clear and convincing that going against the normal zoning and downtown master plan regulations is a positive thing. This finding fails to do that.”
Since its establishment in Kalispell in 2007, Fresh Life Church has grown significantly in size and scope. The church, led by Lusko, who moved to the Flathead Valley from California and formed the church at 25, has acquired multiple properties in downtown and expanded to cities across Montana. Within only a few years, the church drew a regular local congregation of roughly 1,500 people.
As the congregation has continued to grow, so has Fresh Life’s real estate portfolio. The church moved its original headquarters from above the Overflowing Cup coffee bistro on Kalispell’s Main Street into the Strand Theatre on Second Street East in 2007. The church purchased the theater in 2010 and that same year also bought the nearby Liberty Theatre and former First Avenue Café building next door to the Montana Building. The church also now occupies the Montana Building with office space and educational activities.
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